In August, the Department of Homeland Security raided and arrested the staff of Rentboy.com, a website that for nearly 20 years helped men across the world connect with male escorts.
The arrests were just the latest in federal and local government efforts to try to end the existence of prostitution and sex work. Typically when discussing female sex workers, government officials are quick to lay claims of human trafficking and to suggest that women's participation in prostitution is largely non-consensual. That didn't happen here. There was no suggestion that anybody was being harmed at all or forced . Rather, the defendants were accused of violating federal law simply by facilitating prostitution across state and international lines. It didn't matter whether anybody was actually harmed.
In the wake of the bust, several escorts who advertised their services on the site have come forward in the media to openly defend the services they provide to their clients. Much more quiet, for obvious reasons, were the actual Rentboy.com customers. With the current anti-prostitution hysteria pushing toward punishing Johns rather than sex workers, the customers have a lot to lose.
Nevertheless, one customer of Rentboy.com contacted Reason, interested in talking about why he turns to escorts for erotic fulfillment. In a 40-minute phone interview he spoke about his experiences with escorts and why his difficult personal background made them necessary.
To protect this customer's identity, we will be referring to him simply as Tom (not his real name). Tom is 31, lives in a major metropolitan area, and has an advanced education. Any other names mentioned in the interview have also been changed to protect their identities.
Reason: How long have you been using escorts?
Tom: Consistently for about a little bit over a year—about a year and six months. That's not my first hiring experience. My first hiring experience was when I was 20.
Reason: So that's a pretty young age. Why did you turn to escorts at such a young age?
Tom: It took me a very, very long time to come out to anyone. I didn't come out to myself until I was like 17. I didn't come out to my parents until I was 19, specifically because I didn't want to be put it into reparative therapy.
And so, because of that it's always been a little bit hard for me to find partners specifically growing up where I was, which was a rural, Midwest place. There wasn't a lot of gay men around, and so it was sort of a straight practicality at the age of 20, because I was like, "I wanna get this done." By the way I didn't lose my virginity to an escort. It was just a thing like "I wanna get this done." I had had sex but I didn't enjoy it. … Maybe if I hire the guy he would be more attracted, the money would make it more of a distant thing. That's why I hired at 20. That experience went okay. It was not something, at that point in my life, I felt like I need to follow up on.
The major thing about me is I have, I had, a lot of guilt over my sexual orientation. I'm also a little bit kinky. Some of my kinks, because I was raised in a devoutly Catholic, then I'm not gonna say another religion, it was a protestant faith that was specifically anti-LGBT. For years I had a localized guilt around my sexuality and any sort of context. After the experiment when I was 20, I was dating a person, Nick, for a year, and this is not an escort relationship. It was just a perfectly normal relationship. I sat him down and said look we have to try something. I gave him a list. And he elected to give me a spanking. And, it didn't go well. Not like I was hurt or anything. It just didn't work, because he wasn't really into it. And then he dumped me two weeks later because of this.
Because of this, I went too far too fast the other way. And a partner I had for about a month was so abusive towards me. And they … they put me into a mental health hospital.
After that I had one more three-year relationship, where I just settled and it wasn't abusive, it was an ok relationship. It just didn't work, and when time came, time came. So it's very, very hard for me as a matter of my personality to get sexual release, because of all of these experiences of being judged, of being hurt, and the background of my parents being upset with me for being queer. Other sorts of outlets that work for other gay men don't work for me. I cannot hook up. I cannot go to a bath house. Does that all make sense?
Reason: Just to make it clear, the entirety of your sexual experience has not just been with escorts?
Tom: No. It's not even the case that in the last year, when I've been hiring regularly, my entirety of my sexual experience has been with escorts. Now with that being said, my main escort I see, his name's Chris. Me and Chris are continuing in spite of the Rentboy raid. … But it's very unlikely that we'll be caught because he's financially stable enough that he does not have to accept new clients. In which case, after we have a session on Saturday, as soon as I make sure he's not wearing a wire, because, again, trust issues, we're just going to continue on, as much as we can, as if nothing has happened.
Reason: There's been a lot of interviews with the escorts themselves, but not as much of the experience of Johns. What is your experience with a paid escort like, as a John?
Tom: For the most part, unless you've had professional sex, it won't make much sense for you. But one reason why I do it is that the cash makes it professional. Ok? Because me and Chris at the end of the day will never ever be anything other than escort and client. It keeps it professional. That makes the sex—I don't want to say meaningless, because that sounds awful—but it's just sex.
I see Chris for two separate and two very different things. The first thing I see him for is escort work, which is what I've been talking about. The second thing I see him for is massage and coaching work. The massage—I'm actually just being massaged. And the massage work has been working through me and my trust issues, doing trust-building exercises. We relax. … Combinations of those two things keeps it professional. He is being a release.
It helps relieve tension, but the main thing it does and it has done for me—and the main reason I want the story out there—is I now enjoy my sexuality in a way in which I don't think would have happened unless I hired escorts. It's specifically because the cash makes it professional. It's bad customer service for him to judge me for my interests.
Now, I'm not saying he has to put up with everything I want. In fact, there's some things that I've asked for that he says not to. I never push. If he says no, then it's no. The other thing is … the cash is not a sufficient condition for me to have sex with Chris. It's a necessary, but it's not sufficient.
That professionalism and that distance is profoundly helpful. It takes me to a place where I can just enjoy sexuality. It's nice and clean. With the massage work, it's gotten to the place where I don't have guilt anymore. Even though I was an out and proud queer man for 10 years, if I saw a man I was attracted to I would get pangs of guilt. I don't get that anymore because of the work that me and Chris have done.
Reason: You don't feel that you could have found that without paying for an escort?
Tom: I don't think given my personality, given that the cash is like a safety net and everything like that. I don't think it could have been the case that that I would have done that, or even if I could have gotten that, the commercial sex aspect of it sped it up or made it easier to find or made it more likely to happen. I can't say definitively in all possible worlds whether I would have needed commercial sex to get this. I can say that for 10 years of trying I never got it, and doing the work I've done with Chris has really helped in this regard.
Reason: What made Rentboy.com so useful?
Tom: There's several things about Rentboy that made it very, very useful. The first thing is it was a market. So you have information there. It allowed me and the clients to look at all of the escorts, read all the text. I want this noted, I did not hire Chris the first time specifically because of his pictures. Actually he was not the most attractive to me. He listed himself as being a good listener and having a college education, etc., which made me hire him for the first time. So there's that. So, by having all of the sexual groups there, you can look for it, you can engage with it. It makes it like hiring a plumber, basically.
The other thing is, a lot of times escorts on Rentboy are established, so there's other sites which have reviews from other clients describing how they are. What sort of things they'll do. How they are, personality-wise. Because trust is such a big thing for me, I know if an escort has, you know, 26 reviews, that means he's been at this for a while; in general he's a safe person or a safe escort. And so because he has the track record there, and he's professional, I can go to him get service, and then there's that.
And then the other thing is, because they're listing themselves on a public forum, if they do mistreat me as a John or as a client, I can give them a negative review. The one criticism I would have of Rentboy—though I understand why given the legal situation they didn't have this—is I, as a John, a client, would be more than willing, though not necessarily to put my picture, to put my profile out there and have escorts review me as a client.
Reason: So, like what ride-sharing services do?
Tom: Yeah. And I know for a fact some websites, which the government has not shut down, they do that. They have both listings for escorts and for clients. The other thing about Rentboy is, because it was such a major hub, it worked like a market. That's the best way I can explain it, especially if you're a libertarian.
But it's also, because, because commercial sex is a service … if you're looking for something very specific, whether that means some kind of sex act, or someone who wants someone with blue eyes and 5 foot 8, you can look on Rentboy quickly. Sometimes, this is sort of true for me as well. I'm a very busy person, sometimes. You know what I'm saying? Again, I want to stress, that everything I'm saying is from my own perspective, I can't really say how it works for other clients. I don't know if I'm an anomaly, given how much I think about doing this sort of thing ethically, or if I'm completely in the mainstream for clients.
The two main reasons why I'm really upset about Rentboy being shut down is: One, it's been around for 18 years. It was an institution in the sex work community. Sex work is dangerous. It is not understood, it's taboo. And apart from it being illegal, for sex workers—I'm not the client who thinks that this is an easy job. It's not. If you're good at your job, it can be a very rewarding job, but if you get a bad client, well you can end up dead. Rentboy really helps escorts organize and protect themselves. And that's just gone now. And then the other thing is, given that commercial sex has really helped me accept my sexuality, I don't really need. … I don't know if you read the indictment of Rentboy or the complaint?
Reason: Yes, I did read the complaint.
Tom: I don't know if you're familiar with this, but there's this thing from the 1960s from the Florida legislature called the "purple pamphlet." It was this bizarre government document that cost $100,000 to produce in the '60s. It was sold as pornography at one point. It was basically pornographic images, and the government talking about, in lucid terms, what gay men do in the bedroom. If you actually read the Rentboy complaint, which I have, so much of it is just like rubbernecking, looking at what queer men do in the bedroom. Even if I thought sex work should be illegal, which I don't, there's no reason to go into detail and define what "rimming" is, as the complaint does. Or define what a sex sling is. And go through for every freaking type of play on the site. There's no reason to do that. The only reason why it's there … is to demonize male homosexuality. And I thought we were beyond that, given that we just got marriage rights.
Reason: So have you and Chris spoken about Rentboy being shut down?
Tom: Yes. I am a perpetual checker of the news. And so I happened to be emailing him, setting up my appointment on Saturday, and I immediately put into the email, "Rentboy got shut down." We both immediately deleted our email accounts. I changed my phone, everything like that. I've done some other banking stuff.
Now I don't know what he's done, other than he's deleted his email account, and I know for a fact, he's changed another ad he had on, because he does massage work and escorting, which were two separate ads. He had it listed as an erotic massage, which I don't think is technically illegal, but he pulled that as part of his ad. He's not accepting new escort clients, and even with just massage clients, he's in a position where he can say to a new client, "I don't give happy endings." He doesn't know if they'll cross-reference his identity online and try to do an entrapment thing against him.
Reason: Have either of you heard from anyone in the government?
Tom: I have not heard from anyone in the government. The only information I have that's connected to the Rentboy stuff is what's been publicly available. I've just been checking online, and there's been a lot of editorials. One thing that's really weird about this, and I'm sure it's mostly coincidence, it strikes me as really weird and extremely problematic that after [lesbian and gay] people got full recognition of being equal before the law, that another form of sexual expression between consenting adults was targeted, despite the fact that it had been open for 18 years. The timing just feels off or weird. You know what I'm saying? And there's tremendous pressure in our society to get married. And these sorts of relationships are not, "We met hot men in college, got married, moved to the suburbs and had 2.5 kids,"—like that's what we should be doing. Assimilationist tendencies or pressure to assimilate—it just feels weird that Rentboy got shut down now, right on the coattails of marriage.
Reason: So, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice were behind this raid, made a big splash about it, talking about how they busted this huge prostitution ring, even though those of us who know how the site is used, know it's not a prostitution ring. What do you think it is they just don't understand about sex work in 2015?
Tom: People often, conflate, because they don't understand it, forced prostitution and sex work, or sex trafficking, because the way in which our society processes it, people assume that if a person is escorting, they're somehow being forced or compelled to do it. I actually take steps to make sure the escorts I hire aren't in dire economic necessity or under any sort or compelling.
One reason, if it was legal to go to a brothel, I would not use one, because I much prefer to do sex work as an independent meeting another person, because that way there's not a third party person to be exploiting them. The other thing is, I will not hire an escort if I think they are an alcoholic or drug addict. At least for me, philosophically I can understand how that might not be a great choice because it's being driven by an addiction.
As far as the government is concerned, quite frankly I think for the most part, it's a charade. It's morality theater about, "We're gonna go after these people who are expressing their sexuality in a way we don't approve of." The only thing a government should be concerned about, as far as sexual behavior, is if it is consensual or not. And prohibitions against sex work are, as far as I can see, not rational and related to making sure it's consensual or not.
If anything, a blanket prohibition makes it harder for sex workers who are in there being coerced to come forward. That's one of the major dangers, and one of the reasons I really think it should be legal. God forbid Chris or any sex worker I saw gets a bad client—who's a jackass, who rapes him—he can't go to the police. If he goes to the police, not only is he dealing with "men can't rape men" [attitudes], but he's always dealing with "you're a sex worker, he paid you, it can't be rape," which is bullshit. So that's why I'm saying, for the life of me I can't understand why in 2015, why the federal government, especially homeland security … I don't understand it.
I see laws against prostitution as intolerant. For a very long time this is a behavior that some people don't engage in. Some people do. Some people engage in it consensually. For some people it's very, very valuable. For some people it's just how they make ends meet, depending on the person. It's a very personal thing. At the end of the day, it has no real bearing what the government is doing. We know from Romer v. Evans, that mere moral prohibition against something is not sufficient grounds for making a practice illegal. In Lawrence v. Texas, for the life of me, I cannot see how Kennedy's reasoning about an ordered liberty about private choices between consenting adults doesn't cover prostitution. He has that weird declaration at the end of his opinion that this case has nothing to do with prostitution. It comes out of nowhere, he just stuck it in there to cover his ass.
Reason: What would your personal erotic life be like if there wasn't sex work right now?
Tom: At this point, I would not be having sex, would not be engaging in any sexual release, and anything like that. One of the things Chris provides to me is a safe feeling. I said at the beginning of this conversation I've had non-commercial sex, well the reason I'm able to have that is I want to have at least three dates with a guy before I can start having sex with him. The week that Rentboy got raided was a bad week for me. I was seeing this guy for like a month, and I had three dates, and on the fourth we had setbacks. Maybe it doesn't work out, or at least we're taking a break.
I do know that this sort of practice has helped me. It strikes me as profoundly obvious, "need" is a funny word. We think of need as what we need to stay alive. Obviously sex is not a need, but then neither is a phone, nor entertainment, nor video games. Among a whole bunch of things that people do anyway, in terms of happiness in the broadest possible sense, it seems obvious to me that sex is need, and sex work for people like me who have several barriers: being queer, being kinky, having trust issues, that finding the right sort of a person might be more difficult. You might need sex workers to help with that.
It strikes me as profoundly cruel for people who have more barriers to an enjoyable sex life, to just criminalize a method that works for both parties. I've talked a lot about what sex work has done for me. The thing is, we tend to think of sex workers as people who only do sex work. But Chris is an artist; he has a lot of education in art. It's hard being an artist in America in 2015. One of the ways he has balanced his life is that he has his own sort of goals, he has his art and can live by doing sex work and a couple of other things. For the government to intrude upon this arrangement of mine and Chris'. … I'm exploring my sexuality, enjoying my sexuality, lowering my sexual guilt, etc. And Chris, I don't want people to think of this as only a commercialized thing, he finds what he considers a good life by being able to do this sort of work.
Reason: What else do you want people to understand about this situation?
Tom: We have this conception of clients or Johns as perverts in training. People who have some sort of sense of entitlement, some sense of big ego, where they're like, "I'm going to pay this person to treat this mainly as a sexual object." There are definitely clients like that out there, because there are definitely people like that anyway out there. Bad clients are bad clients.
The thing is, I don't think an abusive person is going to be more abusive because they're seeking out a sex worker. People do sex work for multiple different reasons. An abusive person, the problem isn't that they're seeing a sex worker, it's that they're an abusive jackass. It's somewhat of a cliché, but not all Johns are jackasses. It seems weird to me to say that I because I'm a client have a sense of entitlement to another person's body. When I in fact have paid through like $6,000.00 over the last year to Chris to have this commercialized relationship with him. If I thought I was entitled to Chris, I wouldn't pay him the money. You know what I'm saying? It just seems like a bad fallacious sort of argument.